Have you ever encountered a phrase that sounds good -- like, it sounds like it means something really positive and affirming and sensible, but when you think about it, it starts to come apart? I've been thinking about this a lot today, because I saw a post on PutThisOn.com, a blog about men's fashion:
I believe that clothes should complement a man’s personality, not replace it.
— Rev. Jesse Jackson
I follow them on tumblr, because I like ties and blazers and stuff. And I nearly reblogged this. I mean, it's gendered, which is unfortunate. But the sentiment sounded nice.
Then I thought about it. What does it mean for clothes to compliment a personality? What does it mean for clothes to replace it? Who, by the standards of this quote, is getting it wrong?
My first thought was: Hipsters. Obviously. The first target in the sights of any fashionable person attacking bad taste or visible delinquency in America. Those damn, poor, misguided kids who try to cover themselves up in cheap, gimmicky outfits rather than just express who they really are. Except, you have to start from the position that hipsters don't really want to experiment with a variety of group fittings and expression styles to get to the conclusion that they aren't complimenting their personality through those outfits, and I don't think that's a leap anyone can make without intimately knowing a person.
Or maybe this quote cautions against the other direction -- sinking into the traditional corporate persona, becoming an empty suit. In that case, it's a nicer thought. If I were inclined to give Rev. Jackson the benefit of the doubt (which I am) that's what I'd assume he meant.
But it's still not very well thought through, as a quote. In the best possible case, it's the kind of phrase that doesn't mean what you'd want it to mean to anyone who doesn't already understand.
I find there are a lot of phrases like that. They work great as reminders to oneself, but they don't work very well for explaining things. And that's fine, but they seem most often to be used wrong, in that sense. It's a lot easier, though, to just say something that sounds profound than to actually explain things to other people.